As a historian of Reconstruction, I hear echoes of the past emanating from Charlottesville. Comments from rally-goers are reminiscent of those articulated by Southerners after the Civil War, and the tactics leaders encouraged are just as familiar. But for the store-bought tiki torches and hoodless faces, the images from Charlottesville appear nearly identical to those of Klan rallies and lynch mobs that convened late into the 20th century.
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Marchers told us they showed up because, as white Americans, “they’re tired of being pushed around,” fed up with the “anti-white hatred” in the city, and, as KKK leader David Duke noted on Saturday, “to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” to “take our country back.” Rally organizer Jason Kessler was more specific: “The genesis of the entire event is this Robert E. Lee statue that the city is trying to move, which is symbolic of a lot of other issues that deal with the tearing down of white people’s history and our demographic replacement.” The rhetoric is unmistakably similar to older calls to action, like an 1890 handbill that advertised a “Grand Torch-Light Procession” in Jackson, Mississippi, and urged all white men to join and “aid in the final overthrow of Radical Rule,” code for black civic participation.
The torch-wielders in Charlottesville laid claim to an imagined past. They mobilized Lost Cause rhetoric from the late 19th century that gave Southerners the intellectual tools to lose the war, but win the peace. Traditionally, this ideology valorized soldiers’ bravery and righteousness, declared states’ rights, not slavery, to be the cause of the Civil War, and encouraged white Southerners to redeem, or “take back,” their communities from Northern interlopers and former slaves. Statues, like the one dedicated in Charlottesville in 1924, commemorated the successful return to white, Southern rule, and continuously reminded black Americans of their diminished social positions.
The alt-right activists in Charlottesville have internalized the same insecurities, fears, and perverted memories that have always motivated Lost Cause acolytes. The power and privilege they have derived from their whiteness could be lost if not vigorously defended, memorialized, and celebrated. Taking down statues of Lee and other Confederate icons isn’t about protecting history, it’s about protecting the whitewashed myths that undergird their warped worldview and sense of identity.
The addition of neo-Nazis makes Charlottesville appear different from controversies in other cities, such as New Orleans, Columbia and Memphis. To a certain extent, that’s right. Neo-Nazis have injected a particular form of racist nationalism into a discussion that had previously been largely limited to historical memory about the Confederate past. But securing the nation for white people was a goal of white supremacists from the earliest days of Reconstruction. The values of Nazism and American-bred white supremacy have always gone hand-in-glove, and their supporters have long affiliated with one another. Organizing a spectacle that demands both a white nation and celebrates white supremacy continues an ugly American tradition that dates back to the 19th century.
More importantly, Charlottesville rally-goers have shown that white supremacists have found the opening they need to act with impunity. The history of Reconstruction and Jim Crow help demonstrate that militant racism becomes more visible when the political environment tolerates it. When the first KKK, founded in the tumultuous aftermath of the Civil War, came under legal attack in the early 1870s, it perished. But, when Reconstruction ended, and the Supreme Court invalidated the tools the federal government had used to prosecute those engaged in racial violence and intimidation, these tactics – and the KKK itself – reemerged and helped to define a Jim Crow Era of violence, segregation, and disfranchisement that lasted until the Civil Rights Movement. When prevailing political powers stood firm against racialized terror, they prevailed; when they remained silent this extremism flourished.
The Trump Administration has given white supremacists reason to believe that the federal government is on their side. KKK darling Steve Bannon serves in the White House, the Justice Department, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions (who shares a name with two Confederate icons), will investigate anti-white bias in college admissions, the Chief Executive insists on the legality of a racially restrictive travel ban, and refuses to specifically condemn perpetrators of racialized terror. It’s no wonder that white supremacists are emboldened, and willing to show their faces. They fear neither punishment nor rebuke.
But, events in Charlottesville have done something important to change the national conversation about Confederate monuments and a collective historical memory. Coupling neo-Nazism with neo-Confederate hate has helped strip away the thin veneer of states’ rights, military valor, and Southern pride from what has always been at the heart of the matter. The jarring appearance of saluting neo-Nazis has helped people realize the fundamental truth of the Lost Cause: heritage was always hate.
Giuliana Perrone, a scholar of American slavery and emancipation, is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She was a fellow at the Carter G. Woodson Institute at the University of Virginia, and is currently writing a book on the legal history of Reconstruction.